His letter came at just the right time: Thursday afternoon, just 2 days ago, when I was struggling with what words I might say to you today. And so, I will share a bit with you. He has been my friend since 6th grade, and we’ll call him Jeremy though that’s not his name. This letter comes from Tucson, Arizona, the United States Penitentiary.
He writes: I got your letter in the midst of a double lock-down: since April 1st, we’ve been under a shelter in place, restricted schedule - this involved being locked in our cell except for 2 hours each day when one quarter of the unit is let out to shower, make phone calls, exercise, and mingle in the common area; and since June 1st, we’ve been on a full lock-down due to the protests and riots, in an effort to protect federal staff - so now we’re in our cell 24/7, getting a shower every four days. So, to say the least, it’s been an interesting time.
He continues further in the letter with this: Doing Passover while locked in my cell was very weird, especially trying to do the Seders all by myself. But, I am thankful I had the means to do it.
After reading this letter from my friend and classmate from Schechter who was incarcerated 7 years ago for 45 years, I made a promise to myself: I will never complain about my life again. And if I do, you may hold me to this, please say to me: count your blessings and make your blessings count.
I know I don’t even need to say this, but I will: it’s been really tough staying at home all of these months, but it’s nothing like what Jeremy has experienced. Puts our shelter in place into perspective, wouldn’t you say? And it’s scary what’s happening to our world right now. Our white privilege makes us protesters and defenders perhaps, but rarely are we suffering any of the consequences. Jeremy is white and Jewish, just like most of us. And yet the political unrest in our country impacts his life directly and horribly, 24/7, as he sits locked in his cell.
What’s amazing about Jeremy, and the reason I share his story today, in my last official sermon, is that he is my inspiration. He makes lemonade out of those lemons, and his proverbial kiddush cup is always full. His letters always come to me just days after I write to him - clearly he reads and responds immediately. And no matter what is going on in the world, he is positive, hopeful, grateful, and always, always dedicated to being Jewish. Always striving to do and learn and be more with his Judaism.
Do you see why I just had to share his words with you?
What Jeremy seeks, we have. He counts his blessings and he makes his blessings count. Jeremy has to work so hard to get a siddur with which to pray, a box of matzah to eat, and anyone willing to share it with him. And then, when he finds any sparks of Jewish practice, he is so grateful. I know that we too are grateful for our blessings. I know that we too seek siddur - a Jewish way to pray; matzah - a Jewish food to eat; and community - a Jewish way to be. But there’s something different in what tends to happen next.
In our portion this week, Parshat Beha’alotkha, we read, vayihee ha-am k’miton’nim, the people took to complaining bitterly before God. This should not come as a surprise that the Children of Israel, our ancestors, were kvetching!
According to Rashi, the Children of Israel were seeking a pretext to split off from following God. They were looking for an excuse, anything to get out of what they perceived to be too hard. They said, “Woe is us! Three days on the move, without a moment’s rest from the hardships of the trip!” Can you imagine, 3 days of non-stop travel, moving quickly from one campsite to the next, covering more and more desert land every day? My friend Jeremy can only dream of such!
But Rashi explains that God meant it as a favor to the Children of Israel, so that we could enter the Promised Land faster. God was trying to help us make meaning out of the journey and reach the destination, but all we could do was complain bitterly. It’s incredible when you think of it: the best reward just waiting for us, and we can’t pick our feet up out of the desert sand to get there without complaining.
Count your blessings, Children of Israel! Make your blessings count! Sure, we’re in the desert, we miss the cucumbers, melons, garlic, fish, leeks and other delicacies of Egypt, and we’ve been walking for...years. But we’re going from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land! Appreciate the moment, be grateful for this journey, and look forward with joy and anticipation as we approach the Promised Land.
Perhaps it’s human nature to critique and complain. When the things I take for granted are taken away from me, like the ability to run into a store whenever I want to grab a few things, I feel stifled. I know that having my kids home all of these months so far, and over this long camp-less summer, has made me resent parenthood just a bit, when I should have been soaking up the extra snuggles. I know how easy it is to complain and how challenging it is to be grateful.
So today I want to leave you with this: we should count our blessings and make our blessings count. We are so lucky. Even in this pandemic, when so many have lost loved ones, and we hold you today as well, and yet, still, we are blessed. Even as our country flails under a dangerous and irresponsible excuse for leadership. Even as peaceful protests continue yet violence ensues, all too often from the police or the counter-protesters, let’s not forget. Despite it all, we are lucky. We are blessed. We count our blessings.
But it is not enough to count them, we must make our blessings count. We must act. We must act for my friend Jeremy, who is powerless to protect himself or to live freely. Join me in sending new Jewish books and CDs to incarcerated Jews in our country.
We also make our blessings count for our Black brothers and sisters who need to see that we Jews know that Black Lives Matter, and are valued and needed, not just now but always. We continue to work with the Greater Hartford Interfaith Action Alliance to show up and show that we care, as so many clergy and friends did just yesterday to rally for police accountability. And there’s more. I started to make a list and to be honest, the list is endless. I worry that I’ll leave off someone who is in need of our love and protection.
But after Friday's disgusting erasure of transgender civil rights protections in health care, during Pride Month, and on the 4th anniversary of the shooting at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando where 49 people were murdered and 51 more wounded, it is our LGBTQ friends and allies that I am especially thinking of today. And to my friends who are raising children and grandchildren who are transgender, and to my friends who are transgender, we will fight this right along with you.
And so, my friends, that is our charge: count your blessings and make your blessings count by helping the hungry, raising the fallen, comforting the bereaved, defending the weak, and righting the wrongs our brothers and sisters have endured too long.
When the Children of Israel complain bitterly in our Torah portion, we read “God heard and was incensed: a fire of the Lord broke out against them, ravaging the outskirts of the camp.” Rashi explains, this is not a geographical outskirt per se, but a social one. The fire threatens the outcasts of the camp, the marginalized, the most vulnerable. And while Rashi’s idea is refuted by many, we see the tendency toward systemic racism, classism, and prejudice beginning as early as the minds of those who interpret our Torah.
My friends, we have so much work to do. Do not for a second think that the fire on the outskirts of our camp will not threaten us as well. It is our responsibility to end the unrest and dis-ease in our country and in our world.
Personally, I count among my blessings that I have been able to serve and teach and live in a community that cares so much about everyone in our camp, from the far ends of the outskirts to those in the front lines. And as I continue to be a member of this holy community, I hope you will join me in action, as together, we make our blessings count.